Thursday, February 9, 2017

Banning Female Clergy

This week I write to you from Jerusalem, where – despite the new administration’s talk to move the U.S. Embassy here --I have actually heard very little discussion about the new president or anything connected to him.

What was more talked about – at least in the circles I walk in – was the joint statement released last week by the Orthodox Union (OU) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), effectively placing a ban (sorry, just had to use that term!) on Orthodox female clergy and any Orthodox synagogue who employs female clergy. The statement made it very clear that there is absolutely no room for women to hold any title – rabbi or otherwise – that involves serving an Orthodox community in a clergy role:

“We believe that a woman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position. This restriction applies both to the designation of a title for women that connotes the status of a clergy member, as well as to the appointment of women to perform clergy functions on a regular ongoing basis - even when not accompanied by a rabbinic type title.”

The discussion about this statement was heating up this week in Jerusalem, as there are a few large Orthodox synagogues in the heart of Jerusalem that actually do have female clergy, and, of course, many others that do not. This – not any other bans – was the talk of the town in Jerusalem this week.

The timing of this discussion couldn’t be better. This week’s Torah portion – Parashat B’Shalach – features the Exodus from Egypt, the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, and the beautiful Shirat Ha-Yam (Song at the Sea). It also features a very strong woman.

The figure traditionally associated with the Exodus is Moses, yet the Talmud states: “It is by the merit of the righteous women of that generation that the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt” (Talmud, Sotah 11:b).

The leader of that generation’s righteous women was Miriam, Moses’ older sister. Miriam was the only woman in the Torah who had the status of a “Neviah” – a prophetess. In this week’s parasha, she is described as “Miriam Ha-Neviah” – “Miriam the Prophetess.” Rashi comments that she attained the status of a prophetess when she foresaw that her mother would give birth to a boy who would lead the Jewish people out of Egyptian bondage. But in addition to her prediction, when her prophecy actually was fulfilled and the boy was born, she did not sit idly by and say “I told you so.” Instead, like a true leader who takes action, she also took care of the boy…and, I gather, you know the rest of the story. Without Miriam’s wisdom -- the instinctive and nurturing wisdom of a woman -- the exodus would not have been possible, and as the Passover Haggadah says, “Perhaps we would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” We became liberated due to the foresight of a female leader, a prophetess.

As the sea closed on Pharaoh’s chariots, Moses leads the Jewish people in a beautiful song of triumph and thanks to God. This song (shira) – the first song ever in the Torah – is a part of our daily prayer service, and its presence in this week’s parasha gives this Shabbat a special name – Shabbat Shira.

But the voice of Jewish leadership in this episode was not exclusively male. Just as Moses completes his song, the Torah immediately tells us that “Miriam the Prophetess…took a drum in her hand, and all of the women followed her with drums and with dances. Miriam said: Sing unto God, for he is highly praised, the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:20-21).

At the peak of the most miraculous moment in Jewish history, the voices of two prophets – Moses, a man, and Miriam, a woman – were equally heard by the Jewish people, and by God.

Related to this week’s parasha is also this week’s haftara (prophetic portion) from the Book of Judges -- Chapters 4&5 -- the longest haftara of the year. Haftarot are typically chosen due to their thematic connection with the parasha. This week’s haftara relates to the parasha in two ways: 1. It tells the story of a female leader, Devorah, who also had the title “Neviah” (prophetess). Devorah was a prophetess, a judge and a warrior. She was the absolute leader of the Jewish people in her era. 2. It records a lengthy song of military triumph and praise to God (similar to the Song at the Sea), sung by Devorah.

Once again, a woman leads our people, and a woman sings…and we don’t see any opposition to this anywhere in the text.

The Biblical, Talmudic and Rabbinic texts grant prominent status to Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, Leah, Miriam the Prophetess, Devorah the Prophetess, Esther, Ruth, Bruriah, Rashi’s daughters and many other women throughout our history. They are considered important and influential voices of spiritual and political leadership in the Jewish community, sometimes tasked with the heavy burden of saving our people from annihilation or leading our people in times of war.

Indeed, the timing of this week’s Torah portion couldn’t be better. How funny that on the same Shabbat when a congregant hears the Torah and Haftarah talking about two women who are both leaders and prophets, he/she will then go to the kiddush after services and most probably hear fellow congregants talking about how women cannot serve as clergy.

The irony of that is, well…you figure it out.

Shabbat Shalom


Jerry Stein said...

Thank you for sharing very interesting

Robert deMayo said...

Thanks, Rabbi. This is very enlightening. Sad that in this day and age women are prevented from serving in this capacity. I suspect mine is not the only family reading your message in which our most spiritual member happens to be a woman.

Daniel said...

I admire your courage in striving to represent the more friendly and tolerant voices in Orthodoxy and our various halakhic traditions. May you be blessed with much success. Thank you, Rabbi.

Anonymous said...


My question is does the Torah and or Talmud state that Rabbi's can only be men?